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The Elements of Horror (and Some Scary Books you Should Read Today)

black and white picture of a human skull
Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him . . . --Shakespeare's Hamlet

Halloween is tomorrow. Maybe that means something to you: buying lots of candy so you’re ready to make a bunch of kids happy, turning off the porch lights so no one comes knocking at your door, or dressing up in some uncomfortable getup so you can hide behind a Nixon mask at your office’s Halloween party so no one recognizes you when you’re puking into the boss’s cherished cascading pothos. (My favorite is forgetting it’s Halloween because you don’t have kids and end up giving out spare change and half-rotten apples, so the neighborhood kids don’t start spreading the rumor that you’re the asshole on the block).

Some of us, to get into the spirit, watch horror movies. Others read horror. Short stories that leave us stunned (I’m thinking Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”), novels that keep us awake (“The Exorcist,” “Frankenstein”), whatever. The New Yorker reprinted (online) a profile of Stephen King from August, 1998, written by Mark Singer. I think pretty much anyone who reads thinks of Stephen King as the master of horror, so I wasn’t surprised to receive the New Yorker’s email with King’s name and face in it.

Anyway, King is being interviewed by Singer about (at the time) his latest book, Bag of Bones. I’ve read a few King novels, but I’ve never read Bag of Bones. Singer, describing the novel, says, “There is, as well, the expected quota of stuff gothic, grisly, and bizarre—the stalking of the present by the past, sudden deaths, ghosts (one with a major attitude), evil wearing a human face, telepathy, scarifying dreamscapes—all of this animated by characters, circumstances, and dialogue that affirm King’s blindfolded familiarity with everything indigenous to Maine.” Horror isn’t necessarily my thing, but I’ve read a few books I enjoyed, and I get the attraction.

According to Book Riot, the Horror genre is the fifth most popular genre, pulling in $79.6 million in 2020. I’m guessing anything published in the Horror genre from 2020 to this day, because of the dystopian feel we’ve experienced due to the pandemic, is going to do well. The state of the world, what with the divisive situation here in the U.S., the war between Hamas and Israel, the war in Ukraine between them and Putin’s Russia, and every other conflict that falls lower on the interest rung in the press that’s contributing to the conversation of a possible WWIII, probably doesn’t hurt the need or desire for readers of horror to seek out shelter in books that maybe take their mind off of what’s happening around them—by offering up a buffet of even scarier shit than what they’re seeing on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

University of Massachusetts Amherst classics professor Debbie Felton: “Ghost stories have been popular for thousands of years, and there are many reasons why people enjoy them and enjoy being scared by them,” says Felton. “There’s certainly a cathartic effect to hearing a ghost story and being scared out of your wits without ever being in any real danger. But, more essentially, ghost stories ultimately reflect religious beliefs concerning the importance of a proper burial and the survival of the spirit after death. The dead have a need to rest in peace, while the living have a need to believe in an afterlife; who really wants to think about eternal non-existence? And the humor in a lot of ghost stories is a good way to deal with the disturbing reality of death.” –, October 17, 2007.

If you’ve ever read or seen “Hamlet,” by Shakespeare, you can’t forget the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet (as he’s referred to in the play). There have been many scholarly interpretations of the ghost (he’s a devil trying to trick Hamlet; a spirit that convinces Hamlet to seek revenge against the King’s brother, Claudius; the foreshadowing of restraint by Hamlet later on; a tool, if you will, so that Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother (who can’t see the ghost), thinks Hamlet has gone mad. Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play (in college I took three classes over three semesters that covered Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Comedies, and Histories, so I have a few plays under my belt). I always return to Hamlet, take that for what you will.

Picture of a scary mask
Horror is about fear. It's about anxiety. It's about the monsters under the bed.

But back to what this post is about: the elements of horror.

Horror is about fear. For me, personally, I don’t get scared of ghosts and goblins, zombies, werewolves, or any of what I consider make believe. For me, fiction that’s truer to reality is what scares me (as does nonfiction) about serial killers, people who torture people (especially children) and sociopaths who do the things that they do. That, for me, gives me the heebie-jeebies. But what scares me isn’t necessarily what we’re talking about.

Good horror stories are like any other good fiction: you have a main character, that character wants something desperately, they face hurdles they either overcome or don’t, face more hurdles, get what they want (or don’t), and then we wrap it all up at the end. Only with horror, the characters are terrorized by the antagonists they encounter, like the supernatural ones mentioned above. BUT, and there’s always a but, they don’t have to be. Horror can be drawn from almost anything, as long as the characters fear the things they face. It’s the psychological aspect in horror novels and stories that make the fiction interesting and compelling.

Horror fiction can take place anywhere, including space (how many of us jumped out of our seats when the alien popped out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien?) Normally, however, it’s the least scary places that horror writers use as their settings that scare us the most, meaning the places we see and visit every day. An abandoned mansion that’s fallen into disrepair. A graveyard. A rarely visited basement. An attic. A college Halloween party. A prison (that just happens to be haunted). Well, maybe a few of them aren’t exactly places we visit every day, but you get what I’m saying.

The goal of the writer is to instill a sense of fear, a sense of the unknown, a sense that something bad is going to happen to the character(s) or protagonist(s) you have come to like or root for. You want to instill in the reader a sense of dread and anxiety, the feeling that anything is possible, at any moment, to shock or hurt or destroy or kill someone you’ve become attached to.

Poster for The Amityville Horror movie
The Amityville Horror was based on a real life mass murder in Amityville, New York, on Long Island.

Here are a few horror novels and the plots (or at least what happens) in each:

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

A couple moves to a small town where the main road is populated by speeding eighteen wheelers. Behind the couple’s house is a cemetery where local children bury their pets. The cemetery is a burial ground where dead things come back to life. The couple’s son, Gage, is run over by a truck, and his father brings him back to life via the Pet Sematary—but his son is not the same son he buried. A lot of other creepy things happen, but that’s the gist of the novel. King said it was the novel that scared him the most.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

Everyone, at some point or another in their lives, has had the shit scared out of them by watching The Exorcist. But before Linda Blair turned her head backwards in David Gordon Green’s movie, Blatty told the story of an eleven-year-old’s demonic possession and the priests trying to exorcise the demon. Inspired by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Blatty’s descriptions of Regan’s (the eleven-year-old’s) transformation, psychologically and physically, and all the rest of the disturbances and highly charged scenes in the novel, especially since the church is involved, are sure to rattle your nerves.

Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons

Winner of the Bram Stoker Award, the Locus Poll Award for Best Horror Novel, and the August Derleth Award for Best Novel, Simmons’s Carrion Comfort revolves around a small group of people who possess “The Ability,” a power that gives them the ability to control people. And the group does just that. The novel includes Nazis in WWII, the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman. But no one is safe, not children, not the innocent, and, we find out, not even those with the ability.

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

Made into an Academy Award winning movie by Alfred Hitchcock that won Best Picture, Rebecca tells the story of an unnamed young woman who marries a wealthy widower, moves with him into his house, and is thrust into a disturbing reality with horrifying twists. I won’t give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it becomes very apparent that she isn’t welcome in the house and that Rebecca’s death, the widower’s previous wife, may not have died the way everyone thinks she did.

The Amityville Horror, by Jay Anson

I used to live near Amityville, out on Long Island. Every time I passed by exit 32 on the Southern State Parkway or heard the stop for Amityville on the LIRR when I was coming back from “The City,” I thought of the movie, and I thought of the book. The story is based on an event that occurred on November 13, 1974. On that day, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed six members of his family. He was thrown in prison, where he died two years ago, in 2021.

In December of 1975, just over a year after the murders, George and Kathy Lutz and their children moved in, only to move out twenty-eight days later. The Lutz’s brought in Father Pecoraro to bless the house, as they knew of the murders that had occurred. What exactly happened, is unclear, as the story has been inconsistent, but apparently Father Pecoraro was “slapped by an invisible force and told to ‘get out’ by a disembodied voice.” Whatever your thoughts or beliefs on the paranormal, the facts of the case behind Anson’s book are enough to raise an eyebrow.

Cully Perlman is an editor, novelist, and short story writer. Email him at to discuss your editing needs.

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Oct 31, 2023
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Happy Halloween!

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